Letter to Our Supporters, 2020

[This letter was sent out to many of the people who donated to our library in 2014, and since.]

I am writing to update you about what we’ve been doing at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library this year. 2020 has been a hard year for everyone, and we are no exception. But, we persevere. Libraries bring stability to help their communities through hard times.

We had big plans for this year. The library was founded in 1930, so this is our 90th anniversary. In preparation, we had combed archives, in the library and at nearby universities and historical societies, about the library and about Ferguson. It’s an interesting and challenging history, with great highs and some embarrassing lows. We had made plans for monthly group programs to share it all with the community. Then COVID-19 came and everything had to be rethought.

Since the pandemic started, we’ve gone back to a core philosophy: if safe, open; if open, do everything we can. I want to tell you what we’ve been able to do.

We started, of course, with education. Staff members started sharing medical and scientific information about the virus in mid-January. The first known Missouri COVID-19 case was here in St. Louis, in early March. The St. Louis County government issued a shelter-in-place order a little over a week later. It required closing everything except grocery stores and gas stations and a few other places. The library directors across St. Louis all got together, and we decided to continue online services but to close the library doors. Let me tell you, after learning that the best way to support our community in 2014 was to throw those doors open, it was a bitter pill to determine that the best way to support the community in 2020 was to close them. But, we had to keep our people safe, and that meant not allowing the library to become an incubator and communication spot for this then-new and terrifying disease.

We closed our doors on March 17th. Part time staff were told to stay home and take care of themselves and their families. Since their jobs were mostly point-of-contact or shelving, there really wasn’t anything for them to do while the library was closed. They all got paid as if they had been working, because we take care of our people. Meanwhile, the full time librarians kept working from home, and when needed, they came to the empty library. We all knew that our families were our priority, but we were also eager to keep the library healthy and find ways to help our patrons. There was no stopping us.

So all of the full-timers got busy trying to find ways to serve patrons during the shutdown. Online services blossomed. Education via social media grew. We worked up a 4 stage plan, based on science and data, for reopening, with specific criteria for each stage and specific plans for what form library services would take.

We began test-running curbside service in late May, and officially started on June 3rd. We continued paying our part-time staff but the full time librarians handled our curbside services. Everything was free: copies, faxes, prints, and everything else. Patrons really appreciated what we were doing, including a few who made us baked goods!

We went permanently fine-free that month. That means we no longer have overdue fines on our books and movies. Overdue fines place a burden on the poor that eventually puts library services out of their reach. We are done with that.

On June 22nd, we reopened our doors. Case numbers and hospital rates had dropped enough to meet our criteria. We had PPE for staff and masks to give to patrons. We marked all the space for social distancing, required masks, and did absolutely everything the experts were suggesting. The science said that chances of cross-infection rose significantly at about the 20 minute mark indoors, so we put a restriction in place to limit inside access to 20 minutes at a time. We continued to offer curbside service. At this point, we were able to offer the full range of services with the exception of group programming. It just was not safe to gather 20 or 30 people into one of our small rooms.

But numbers got worse in St. Louis. We had set criteria for moving from stage to stage, and that included moving back to safer stages when it was necessary. Infection rates soared to triple what they had been before, and so we moved back to curbside on August 3rd. We knew it might happen, but it was even harder to go backwards than it was to close the first time.

However, this time around we did things a little differently than the other libraries in the area. We had to, because our patron base has different needs. Our fax machine gets constant use from patrons sending applications to government agencies, and many of our patrons cannot afford computers or internet service at home. We were a little wiser by then, so we came up with something we called “Enhanced Curbside”. In addition to handling books, faxes, copies, etc, from patron cars, we also offered computer use and access to a fax/copy machine. We pushed wheeled tables out every morning, and set computers up on them. We kept our small (4 foot by 8 foot) foyer open to patrons with an additional PC and our fax/copy machine. Thus, we were offering computer use, faxing, photocopying, notary services, curbside checkout, and online programs. We also added some face-to-face distanced programs for voter registration and filling out the census, via partnerships with the League of Women Voters and the Census Bureau. Missouri is one of the states that required absentee voters to notarize their return envelope, so we had incredibly high use of our free notary service.

When weather started getting cold, we increased the size of the foyer about 4 fold by creating a false wall with a service desk and plexiglass, and putting ventilation in place, along with the usual safety rules about capacity, masks, social distancing, and so forth. This allowed us to continue offering computers, copying and faxing to our patrons. Everything was still free, and will be for the foreseeable future.

But now, the numbers are staggeringly high in St. Louis and hospitals are near capacity. We were recently forced to pull back again, substituting laptops for use in cars instead of computers in the foyer, and going back to handling faxes and copies via curbside service instead of self-service. We’ve made sure that patrons can still do everything they did before, even if it’s a bit slower. We have grouped staff members into work pods, so that if one gets sick, only the others in their pod will have to quarantine, and the library will be able to continue on. We have everyone working from home as much as possible. This moment of high alert feels very temporary, like we are holding our breath, waiting for the chance to open the foyer again. I can’t say for sure how long it will last, because that depends on the numbers. I am eager for the day we can open the doors again, and further out still, welcome crowds into the library again.

Until then, we will continue being as open as we safely can, and doing as much as we possibly can.

Don’t forget to support your own local public library! They’re doing everything they can for your community, too. If you want to help us again, please drop by http://tinyurl.com/FMPLDonation and donate again.

As always, THANK YOU!

Scott Bonner, Director
Ferguson Municipal Public Library District
@fergusonlibrary on Twitter
35 N Florissant Rd, Ferguson, MO 63135

The Ferguson Municipal Public Library District (43-0899661) is registered (per a Section 218 agreement) as a state or local government agency. We are tax deductible under this 170(c)(1) designation, for political subdivisions. Our type of organization is listed specifically in Publication 526 Charitable Contributions, as being tax deductible as long as the donation is being used for a public purpose, and we use all donation money to serve the public.